Symptoms & Treatment for Celiac Disease

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is characterized by a negative immune system response to gluten, a protein that is found in wheat, rye, barley, and some medications and products. Although in the past celiac disease was somewhat rare, today the problem is very common–affecting around two million Americans.

What causes celiac disease?

Celiac disease can onset at any time in life, originally caused by a genetic predisposition. It often surfaces in a person after one of the following events:

  • Pregnancy
  • Extreme emotional stress
  • Surgery
  • Viral infection

Additionally, gluten allergies or sensitivities often go undiagnosed because:

  • Symptoms are often misdiagnosed as other health issues.
  • Physicians don’t usually suspect celiac disease first when presented with symptoms.

What is the biology behind celiac disease?

For those who suffer from celiac disease, the immune system causes damage to the inner lining of the small intestine, which is between your large intestine and stomach.

Your small intestine is about twenty feet in length and helps your body process food and absorb nutrients into your body. The lining of this area of your digestive tract contains small protrusions that allow nutrients to go from the small intestine to the bloodstream. when these protrusions are considered unhealthy, nutrients are not absorbed correctly.

For those with celiac disease, consuming food that contains gluten triggers an immune system reaction, which damages the lining of your small intestine. More specifically, the protrusions that intake nutrients from your small intestine become damaged.

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

There is a wide range of symptoms that are associated with celiac disease, which may or may not be present depending on the person. Just as some people may have celiac disease but display no symptoms at all, it is also possible for a person to have some of these symptoms but not be suffering from celiac disease.

Celiac disease symptoms include recurring episodes of recurring or chronic:

  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Joint pain
  • Cramps
  • Tingling numbness in the legs (from nerve damage)
  • Mouth sores
  • Skin rashes

Additionally, many people suffering from celiac disease may also notice:

  • Weight changes (loss or gain)
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Behavioral changes, such as irritability
  • Delayed growth (for children)

How is celiac disease diagnosed?

It is sometimes difficult to diagnose celiac disease, as it tends to mimic the symptoms of other problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease. Some of the ways your doctor may rule out other problems and diagnose celiac disease include:

  • Blood testing – to check autoantibody levels, which tend to be high in those suffering from celiac disease
  • Upper endoscopy – to check for damage to the small intestinal lining

How is celiac disease treated?

Usually, celiac disease is treated by calming the immune system reaction to gluten and managing the symptoms associated with the disease. This generally involves strictly cutting gluten out of your diet and paying close attention to the ingredients of medications, foods, and beverages that you consume. Over the course of a person’s life, this can help avoid damage to the small intestine and also alleviate symptoms of the disease. It is important for patients to remember that just because symptoms subside and they begin to feel better, it is important to maintain strict adherence to a gluten-free diet to maintain these results.

Can I reverse damage to the small intestine due to celiac disease?

Yes. In time, damage caused by your immune system response to gluten can be reversed in most cases. In order to ensure that your small intestinal lining can repair itself, it’s important to strictly adhere to a diet that is completely gluten-free and to be very conscious of the ingredients found in the food and drinks you are consuming. Being “healed” from celiac disease means your small intestine has completely restored itself to normal functioning, which occurs over time; however, this can be reversed if gluten is consumed again.

What are the possible complications that can occur from celiac disease?

The most common complications that can result from celiac disease include:

  • Increased risk of malnutrition and anemia
  • Refractory celiac disease, meaning symptoms return or continue despire a gluten-free diet
  • Intestinal damage
  • Osteoperosis, due to lack of nutrient absorption
  • Risk of other autoimmune diseorders
  • Increased risk of lymphoma or intestinal cancer

What is the best gluten-free diet?

Because grains are a part of a balanced diet and a big part of our food intake, it is important to consult a nutritionist when you find out that you have celiac disease.

The following foods are gluten-free and recommended for those suffering from celiac disease:

  • Brown rice
  • Corn
  • Flax
  • Nuts
  • Potatoes
  • Quinoa
  • Seeds
  • Soy
  • Wild Rice

The following are known to aggravate the symptoms of celiac disease and should be avoided for those with celiac disease:

  • Wheat/wheat products
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Triticale (a blend of rye and wheat)

The following processed foods are known to contain gluten. While they may also have gluten-free versions, it is important to thoroughly read the label before consuming:

  • Chips
  • Candy
  • Cold cuts
  • Fries
  • Gravy
  • Rice
  • Seasoned tortilla chips
  • Soups
  • Soy sauce

Adapted from Thompson T. Celiac Disease Nutrition Guide, 2nd ed. Chicago: American Dietetic Association; 2006. © American Dietetic Association; and Quick Start Guide for Celiac Disease, Celiac Disease Foundation, and the Gluten Intolerance Group. For a complete copy of the Celiac Disease Nutrition Guide, please visit www.eatright.org.

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